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Dark Shadows (2012)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DARK SHADOWS (2012)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Alice Cooper

Written By: Seth Grahame-Smith (also story), John August (story) Directed By: Tim Burton

The Short Version

A television classic gets a Tim Burton makeover.

The faith kept with the spirit of the series is commendable and impressive.

Let us remember, people, that “Dark Shadows” was a soap opera.  Perceive accordingly.

The cast rocks… to Alice Cooper!

Remember what it’s meant to be, and Dark Shadows is very much worth your time.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MILD WHITE CHEDDAR WITH ONION.

“Oh, dear; hath my scent offended thee?”

No, but it is best appreciated by those with a very definite taste for the style.


Pairs Well With...

MOSCATO.

Practically the official wine of the 1970s dinner party.  I know people tend to associate vampires with red, but this is a fishing family, and white pairs with most fish.

“Are you stoned or something?”

“They tried stoning me, my dear.  It did not work.”


Have you ever watched a soap opera long for long enough to understand the fundamental framework upon which such things are supposed to operate?  In a nutshell, the stories are over the top, a million subplots happen at once (with the understanding that any or all of them are allowed to suddenly disappear for any length of time for no apparent reason), and the characters take themselves and the situations they’re in far too seriously while any sane member of the audience recognizes that what’s going on is patently absurd.  Even though the people involved are rarely allowed to laugh at their own jokes, the situations are incredibly funny, often precisely because the characters are being so serious about everything.

(Guys, feel free to imagine pro wrestling storylines without the sweaty dudes and the “wardrobe by Speedo” thing, and you’ll land in pretty much the same place.)

Fun fact: the original “Dark Shadows” television show upon which this film is based was a soap opera.

Director Tim Burton and his wonderfully chosen cast and crew are all aware of this fun fact, and they have crafted their own derivative feature accordingly.  Others, however, seem to have missed this vital detail.  More’s the pity, because by failing to appreciate Dark Shadows as a story deliberately told and presented in soap opera fashion, those people are missing out on a damn excellent movie.

Our story begins in 18th Century Liverpool, where the Collins family – and their servants – are boarding a ship for the New World.  Within a year, they’ve founded the town of Collinsport, and soon, it is one of the most successful fishing towns in all of New England.  The family prospers, the townsfolk prosper, and  everybody’s happy.  Everybody, that is, save for one of the Collins family’s servants: Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green, Casino Royale). 

Angelique’s sights have been set on dynasty scion Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, The Ninth Gate) for years, but while she has succeeded at becoming his lover, she does not have his love.  That belongs to another young woman named Josette (Bella Heathcote, In Time).  Being a disciple of the “if I can’t have his heart, no one will” school – and a witch – Angelique curses them both.  First, she places a spell on Josette that causes the young woman to jump to her death from a shoreline cliff, and then she curses Barnabas to suffer the loss forever by turning him into a vampire.  And just to make sure that he really suffers, she convinces the townspeople to seal him up in a silver-chained box and bury him for all eternity.

Flash forward to 1972.  Workers are excavating for a new sewer pipe to be laid outside of Collinsport when their shovel strikes a metal box.  Thinking they’ve found treasure, the greedy men break it open, only to find themselves face to face with a very, very thirsty vampire.  After nearly two centuries beneath the earth, Barnabas Collins has returned at last…

When translating classic television shows for the big screen, it’s become rather trendy to turn the resulting films into screwball comedies, whether or not the original material happened to fall into that genre.  (21 Jump Street, anyone?)  After the trailers for Dark Shadows made the rounds, the general supposition was that it would follow the same pattern.

When it didn’t, many critics became upset, describing it with phrases like “lost opportunity” and “too serious.”  I have to wonder if those people 1) understand the earlier fun fact about the soap opera, and 2) saw the same movie I did.  No, Dark Shadows does not feature a fat guy blubbering about like a moronic dipshit, nor should it have.  Instead, it stays true to its soapy roots, and features high caliber actors pouring on the melodrama in marvelous fashion, trusting the audience to have enough brain cells to follow the humor without the actors needing to supply a laugh track themselves.  (The nods to commercial break pauses are fun and numerous.)  Yes, the story meanders from time to time and certain characters disappear for a while after being plainly presented as primary players, but this is not a matter of poor writing; it’s playing by the rules.  If you’ve watched any kind of serialized drama, this is plain to see, as is the major arc, which is ever present even as the occasional subplot is allowed to dine on the well-constructed scenery as though it were fine chocolate.  All you have to do is pay attention.

Have we really gotten so lazy that we can’t laugh and do that at the same time anymore?  I hope not.

Beyond staying true to its inspiration’s soap opera roots, Dark Shadows also does a marvelous job operating the Way Back Machine.  The movie is presented in the partially washed out warmth and color palette typical of films from the time of its action: the early 1970s.  The rock end of the soundtrack – starting with a gorgeous opening credit series behind the immortally awesome “Nights in White Satin” and reaching an ultimate highlight with in-mansion performances by Alice Cooper (whom Barnabas calls “the ugliest woman I have ever seen”) – is so spot-on that even Quentin Tarantino would have a hard time coming up with a better playlist.  The costumes are wonderful.  (Even before considering how Eva Green’s necklines plunge.)  And in the ultimate measure of any film’s adherence to pop culture, the teenage girl’s bedroom is properly packed with relics of the day, from the David Bowie poster to the lava lamp.

The theatre marquee is also a gas, but on that score, two other cameos trump the town movie house.  With a nod to the many tips of the cap that director Tim Burton makes toward Hammer horror style, Hammer’s ultimate living icon, Christopher Lee, makes an appearance as a sea captain.  Less likely to be noticed by the common fan but no less important, four members of the original “Dark Shadows” cast can be found attending the Alice Cooper party, including the classic Barnabas Collins himself, Jonathan Frid.  Very classy.

And the same can be said of those whose billing comes at the top.  It should go without saying that by the time you’re done watching Dark Shadows, you’ll be convinced that only Johnny Depp could have pulled off the role of Barnabas Collins, because hey, that’s what the man does.  He turns weird into amazing, and when you put Tim Burton at the helm, the results are multiplied.  It’s math that can’t be argued with.  But Mr. Depp isn’t alone up there.  The fact that Eva Green sexes it up to the max is obvious to anyone, but more importantly, she’s also playing the perfect soap opera villainess vixen.  Meanwhile, playing Krystle to her Alexis (but minus the catfight) is Michelle Pfeiffer (Tequila Sunrise) as the modern-day Collins family matriarch, Elizabeth.  Pfeiffer’s unflappable portrayal is joy to watch, making the payoff moment all the more spectacular when her turn comes during the climactic confrontation.  She also gets the best soap opera line of the film, which I won’t spoil; just… damn.  Very nicely done.  Those same three words apply right on down the casting line, folks.  Nothing bad to see here; it’s all good.

There’s so much more that can be said about Dark Shadows, but I don’t want to spoil the entire party.  (All right, one more phrase: furniture-destroying sex to the tune of Barry White.)  It’s smart.  It’s refreshing.  It’s thoughtfully absurd.  I love it.

Bottom line, I think you should see it.  Dark Shadows is just too much fun to pass up, combining regular humor with soap opera melodrama in a way that’s absolutely delightful to watch.  And when it’s all being played out by a cast like this… what’s not to love?

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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